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Austin Public Health sticks to Stage 3 as transmission rate still high

The area has entered Stage 2 territory for hospital admissions, but health officials say the community transmission rate remains high at this time.

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas — Austin Public Health officials said Friday that the Austin-Travis County area will remain in Stage 3 of the City's risk-based coronavirus guidelines although the area has moved into Stage 2 territory.

Austin-Travis County Health Authority Desmar Walkes spoke about the decision at this week's COVID-19 briefing, saying the community transmission rate – which shows the number of cases per 100,000 residents over seven days – is still at a substantial level according to the CDC.

"Right now, when we look at our number of cases in the last seven days per 100,000, we are seeing 50 cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, which puts us in a period of substantial transmission," Walkes said. "And it’s for that reason that we’re going to stay in Stage 3. And we know that that number is slowly going down and as it continues to come down, then we’ll make another ... we’ll take another look at things."

Walkes also cited the surge caused by the delta variant that led to a jump in hospitalizations in the area. She said the data gathered from the surge and the seven-day average from hospitalizations has also helped inform the decision on moving between stages.

"This pandemic is not over. We have stabilized our hospital system for now, but we can’t allow surges caused by COVID-19 variants to be our new norm,” Walkes said in a news release. "Until more people are vaccinated, we must prepare for the very real possibility of future, more deadly variants."

In Stage 3, vaccinated individuals are urged to wear masks in all situations except in outdoor gatherings and while dining and shopping. Meanwhile, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people are urged to wear masks at all times. The health department added that those at high risk of serious illness should continue wearing masks at indoor gatherings, while shopping, dining and traveling, even if they're vaccinated.

APH Interim Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup said staying in Stage 3 is what the community needs right now to prevent another surge.

“I know that’s a lot for us to swallow," Sturrup said. "If you’re that person who’s watching the metrics that we’ve already identified, you were ready to roll into Stage 2 and enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday with limited restrictions. And I know we’re tired, we’ve been in this for two years."

Austin-Travis County has been in Stage 2 territory since Friday, Oct. 22, with the seven-day average for hospital admissions just above 14 per day, according to the City's COVID-19 dashboard. The average has continued to drop since then and was at 13.6 as of Friday. 

In Stage 2, vaccinated individuals are only urged to wear masks while traveling while unvaccinated, and partially vaccinated individuals are still urged to wear masks in all situations.

"And if you’re one of those people who are going to run to the metrics and look at it, you’ll see, yeah we’re high, you know our CRT is high but our hospitalizations rates, those are getting better," Sturrup said, adding that the drop in hospitalizations is due to preventative measures like vaccinations and mask wearing. 

APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette urged caution heading into the cold and flu and holiday gathering season, saying the area began seeing its second spike in virus cases this time last year.

"We don’t want to be there again. So we’re in the position right now to keep COVID-19 at bay," Pichette said. 

As of Friday, Nov. 5, Austin-Travis County had a 7-day moving average of 122 hospitalizations, with 53 people in the ICU and 33 on ventilators. The positivity rate was at 3.7% with 67 new cases reported. 

Watch the full update from APH below:

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